Are you feeling a little worked up today? A touch ratty? Do you want to leap to the conclusion that you’re stressed? That’s a common misperception – you’d know real stress in genuine high risk situation, for example, when your body and mind can shut down – but you are nonetheless feeling the effects of cortisol.
That’s the ‘stress hormone’, a steroid hormone that spikes in time of anxiety. It also stimulates the liver to increase production of blood sugar, and helps covert fats, proteins and carbs into useable energy. Cortisol levels rise and fall in a wave naturally over 24 hours. All of which is to say, it’s important, necessary stuff.
But the self same effects, when constant, can result in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, or give you Cushings syndrome – high blood sugar and blood pressure levels, depression, confusion, weight gain. Studies in animals have shown that too much cortisol can promote the accumulation of belly fat, as well as a strong preference for energy-dense, high calorie comfort foods – although comparable studies in humans are less clear cut; one study, however, did find a correlation between high cortisol levels over a four year period and the likelihood of being obese, and staying obese, compared with those with lower levels.
There’s bad news on the flip side too. You can even have too little cortisol through what is being described as adrenal insufficiency – weight loss, low blood levels, severe fatigue, fainting. Why might you have a deficiency? Again, the thinking goes, because a history of constant high stress levels have caused the adrenal glands to burn out.
TIME TO CHECK?
It could be time to pay a trip to the doctor – cortisol levels can be measured in urine or saliva or, most easily by blood. Blood samples are likely to be taken in the morning, when levels are highest, and again late afternoon, when levels should be considerably lower. For low cortisol a blood test measures cortisol levels before and an hour after an injection of adrenocorticotropic hormone, a pituitary gland hormone that helps stimulate cortisol production. If urine is being used to take readings, you’ll need to collect all the urine you produce over a 24 hour period.
In other words, either way it’s quite an involved process – one that might put you off. But don’t. Modern society has tended to normalise high stress – we accept it as part and parcel of a busy life – and there’s much misunderstanding of how to tackle it, with widespread belief that all you have to do is get an early night, drink less coffee, get some exercise or do some yoga.
All of these will help, of course, but underlying your feelings of stress could be something much more serious that needs addressing. The message? Don’t ignore the symptoms. And remember that a stress reaction is entirely natural but occurs for a purpose. If it’s happening all the time, it’s not sustainable, and something in your life has to change before it causes lasting damage.